Syria Ponders the Olive Branch

Israelis assess whether Assad is ready to pay the price for peace sought by Rabin's government

IT has been an eventful year of peacemaking in the Middle East.

First the Palestine Liberation Organization, then Jordan, turned a page on relations with Israel. Attention is now fixed on Syria, Israel's most formidable foe and the only major link remaining in the chain of hostile states that has surrounded the Jewish state since its birth.

While few pretend to know the mind of Syria's shrewd and inscrutable leader, Hafez al-Assad, Israeli experts have spared little effort trying. Asked to assess the mood of their country's principal nemesis, they describe a man who is now intellectually reconciled to the need for peace with Israel but still encumbered by old habits of thought.

``There is great reluctance on Assad's part to go to war again, but a tremendous reluctance to pay the price of peace by giving Israel full normalization,'' says Amatzia Baram, an expert on Syria and Iraq at the University of Haifa. ``Both Assad and the Syrian people are having a hard time adjusting ... to the concept of an Israeli flag fluttering over an Israeli Embassy in Damascus.''

As a leader possessing absolute power, Mr. Assad can contemplate his next moves with Israel free of the democratic constraints that burden his Israeli counterpart, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

``We can't speak of political pressures in Syria since Assad is so powerful. Nobody puts pressure on Assad,'' says Moshe Maoz, a biographer of Assad who teaches at Hebrew University.

Even so, the environment for peacemaking is influenced to a limited extent by the highly contradictory views of the country's most powerful constituencies:

* The Baath Party. Most opposed to peace, Israeli analysts say, are the quarter million members of Syria's ruling Baath Party, who are deeply embedded in every layer of the Syrian government, who operate the propaganda arms of the government, and who head the vast number of ``associations'' that represent groups ranging from lawyers to women.

Virtually all have been weaned on the notion that Jews should be driven into the sea, and some still hold to the vision of a ``Greater Syria,'' consisting of modern Syria, Lebanon, and all of Palestine, including Israel. ``These guys owe their careers to an ideological commitment to the party,'' Dr. Baram says. ``They have been eating and drinking anti-Zionist propaganda for the past 30 years.''

* The business community. Business leaders are the most supportive of peace. They calculate that reduced defense budgets will mean a peace dividend of lower taxes and higher expenditures on domestic infrastructure. Regional tranquility is also likely to translate into greater economic development based on more foreign investment, more tourism, and new trade ties with the West Bank and Gaza.

* The military. Squarely in the middle is the Syrian military, which is of two minds on the subject of peace with Israel. If there is peace, the role and budget of the military will diminish. If there is no peace, there could be an eventual war. As the Syrian high command knows better than anyone, it is a war Syria would lose.

According to one Israeli intelligence source, Assad carefully consulted with senior Syrian officers before agreeing to participate in ceremonies in Madrid that launched the Middle East peace process in 1991. To clear the way for a possible breakthrough with Israel, the Syrian leader has removed or reassigned several of his top military and intelligence leaders.

Given this range of attitudes in Syria, the question of peace hinges on two factors: what Assad wants, and what is politically possible for him in the way of concessions to make peace possible.

As to the latter, Israeli sources are convinced that as long as the Israeli military can be convinced to go along, little will stand in the way of peace. ``If people in the party feel that Assad has absolutely made up his mind, and if the Army and security people are essentially behind him, then the vast majority of party men would say, `OK, we have to accept it,' '' Baram says.

As for Assad himself, the picture is more complicated. Israeli sources speculate that while regaining the Golan is one of Assad's priorities, he will not sacrifice anything to gain it. ``Assad's first priority is to be the dominant power of the Levant,'' says Dore Gold, of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. ``If he sees that getting the Golan back enhances this goal, he'll go for it. But if it requires him to forfeit too many aspects of his military power or to pull out of Lebanon, he won't.''

Dr. Gold notes another complicating factor in Assad's approach to peace with Israel. The Syrian leader was stung when former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat broke ranks with the Arab world and made a separate peace with Israel in 1979. The reward for Egypt was the return of the Sinai Peninsula, also seized by Israel in 1967, under a three-year timetable.

As a point of pride, Assad may now be looking for a withdrawal under better terms than Egypt got. ``The Syrians want to say they got a better deal than the Egyptians,'' Gold says.

Few Israelis believe such a deal is possible given, among other factors, the need for gradualism that would be demanded by the Israeli public.

Israeli sources speculate that Assad would prefer to give only half a loaf for the Golan: formally ending Syria's 40-year state of war with Israel - that is, declaring a state of nonbelligerency - without having to extend full diplomatic relations.

But in the end, they speculate, he will understand that regaining the lost territory will require going all the way sooner rather than later, meaning normalization, open borders, free trade, free travel, and an exchange of ambassadors.

``The option of force [to regain the Golan] has sensibly gone down in Assad's order of priorities,'' Maoz says. ``He knows he has to pay a price and can get a price. That's a healthy situation because it means that it's just a matter of negotiating a deal. Assad is intelligent enough to understand that it's not worth missing the train.''

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